Gordianicity

I’ve written elsewhere about genealogies of knowledge, and my view that tracing them is central to understanding how we know what we know. Today, I’ll point to two intellectual genealogies outlined on recent episodes of Democracy Now! which I found particularly compelling.

On Thursday, historian Robin D.G. Kelley pointed to some of the individuals and organizations who have done the foundational work in recent years and decades (going all the way back to 1977 when the Combahee River Collective issued its iconic Statement) that is now making possible this transformative moment in US history:

And one of the things we all have to acknowledge is that we’re not here by accident. You know, this is not a spontaneous response to the pandemic, and suddenly white people are waking up and saying, “Oh, wait a second, Black lives matter.” No, this is a product of enormous work, going back well before Trayvon Martin. But you think about all the organizing work, the Movement for Black Lives, Black Lives Matter, the women who organized Black Lives Matter, initiated — Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors — people like Melina Abdullah, Charlene Carruthers of Black Youth Project 100, all the scholar activists who have been working on this question — Barbara Ransby, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore — and then, before that, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Copwatch, Dignity and Power, Critical Resistance, the African American Policy Forum. These were initiatives on the ground who did all this political education, all this organizing work — We Charge Genocide, Dream Defenders, the Rising Majority, Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity, and also groups like SURJ, you know, [Showing] Up for Racial Justice, which deals with white racism.

So you have an infrastructure in place that has been doing this work for a decade or more — more than a decade. And that’s why people are out here. […] And I think it’s very important to even go back and acknowledge how the foundations were laid by the Combahee River Collective, by people like Barbara Smith, raised by the Third World Women’s Alliance […] there’s a long history that got us here.

And the real question now is whether or not this can be sustained, because we know, throughout history, we’ve had revolutionary moments, after Reconstruction in the 1870s, followed by backlash and by what we can describe as American fascism. We have the sort of Second Reconstruction of the 1960s, followed by backlash, the rise of the Klan, the tamping down on the strike wave in the 1970s, neoliberalism. And now we’re facing another one. We have these forces trying to transform the world in a way that could actually bring safety and prosperity to all versus a president and a regime that asks, “What happened to Gone with the Wind?

And, yesterday, in the same spirit, Angela Davis observed that:

[W]hen these protests erupted, I remembered something that I’ve said many times to encourage activists, who often feel that the work that they do is not leading to tangible results. I often ask them to consider the very long trajectory of Black struggles. And what has been most important is the forging of legacies, the new arenas of struggle that can be handed down to younger generations.

But I’ve often said one never knows when conditions may give rise to a conjuncture such as the current one that rapidly shifts popular consciousness and suddenly allows us to move in the direction of radical change. If one does not engage in the ongoing work when such a moment arises, we cannot take advantage of the opportunities to change. And, of course, this moment will pass. The intensity of the current demonstrations cannot be sustained over time, but we will have to be ready to shift gears and address these issues in different arenas, including, of course, the electoral arena.

Davis further remarked:

But I do think that we now have the conceptual means to engage in discussions, popular discussions, about capitalism. Occupy gave us new language. The notion of the prison-industrial complex requires us to understand the globalization of capitalism. Anti-capitalist consciousness helps us to understand the predicament of immigrants, who are barred from the U.S. by the wall that has been created by the current occupant. These conditions have been created by global capitalism. And I think this is a period during which we need to begin that process of popular education, which will allow people to understand the interconnections of racism, heteropatriarchy, capitalism.

In the statements of both Kelley and Davis, we see at once homage being paid to those who have done the often thankless work to get us here, and the open question posed, what it will take to carry the momentum of the current moment forward to make lasting political change. (Fittingly, a collection of Davis’s essays, published in 2015, bears the title, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle.) For my entire life, my inclinations, then my conscience, and finally, as they took shape, my politics have run counter to the dominant discourses and ruling ideologies of my country, and the idea that we might be at a turning point that will allow us to break free from Reaganism and the neoliberal status quo is as thrilling to me as it is daunting. I believe that public health experts err when they attempt to justify, by utilitarian calculus, claims that the risks associated with mass protest in the midst of a pandemic are outweighed by the benefits of confronting structural racism. This is math that is too uncertain regarding phenomena too disparate (and of too varied time horizons) in character. The commitment to support this movement, in spite of the impossible and disastrous timing, is fundamentally political. It’s been at least 50 years since we’ve seen an opening like this one, and who knows when (or, given the state of the world, even if) such an opportunity will arise again. The future hangs in the balance, so, in my view, this is not a question of trying to calculate mortality figures – by that logic, there would be no way to justify actions that risk significantly exacerbating the impacts of COVID-19. Epidemiologically-speaking, there simply should not be any mass gatherings right now – especially none with people packed tightly together, chanting, being brutalized by police in ways that threaten to increase the transmission of the disease – but there are mass gathering right now. There is a mass uprising, in fact, for reasons beyond any of our controls, and forces and phenomena such as those that have now been set in motion follow logics which are indifferent to the rational calculus of epidemiology. The pandemic may yet influence, perhaps even decisively, the outcome of the nationwide protest movement, but it will not do so through force of reason – only because lots of people start dying.

What we could have controlled, we failed to. What we can’t, we can now only wrestle with. Epidemiology can no more instruct us how to resolve our present intractable national dilemma than a climate model (or even a climate plan) can, alone, guide us out of our ever-deepening global climate crisis. Prediction and best practices are one thing – politics, action, and power, quite another.

Just Convergence

If you face an adversary armed with a bow, you don’t necessarily make yourself safer by breaking the arrows as they come. You don’t necessarily even make yourself safer by seizing and destroying the bow. Might not your adversary have other weapons on hand?

The police are animate though, so perhaps it’s more fitting to imagine that someone assails you with a dog. The dog could be killed, tamed, defanged, freed, redirected, or simply put on a leash, but what of your assailant?

In a text conversation, my friend Alex (in addition to calling for “garbage bags for cops” and “state of the art PPE for docs”) opines, “There also needs to be [a] legal framework to prevent private security militias from being further cemented into cities [to prevent] what could be potentially an exodus to the private sector for ex-cops more than already exists.”

The forces most directly served by the police have shown protean flexibility over the course of US history, and I worry both about the singular rage directed at the police and the narrow focus on police reform, not because the rage isn’t justified and the reforms aren’t called for, but because the progression from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration points to the ability of entrenched interests to outmaneuver and undermine movements for social justice. To often, we find ourselves a step behind, and I share Alex’s concern about the shift to private security forces, and harbor additional worries about e-carceration, counterinsurgency, and the medium-term hybrid warfare to which an emerging broad Left movement for change will almost certainly be subjected.

On the pandemic, quoting from the study (now available) that I referenced yesterday:

By analyzing the trend and mitigation measures in Wuhan, China, Italy, and New York City […] we show that airborne transmission is highly virulent and represents the dominant route to spread the disease. […] We conclude that wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission, and this inexpensive practice, in conjunction with simultaneous social distancing, quarantine, and contact tracing, represents the most likely fighting opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic. Our work also highlights the fact that sound science is essential in decision-making for the current and future public health pandemics.

On the convergence of struggles for racial justice, public health, and climate sanity (about which I’ve been writing in recent days), there’s a good, short interview with Rhiana Gunn-Wright, “one of the architects of the Green New Deal,” in which she states:

When the Green New Deal came out, […] [p]eople were nervous that attaching climate change and climate policy to calls for racial justice or economic justice was too much, that we were actually going to make it harder to make progress on climate—as if they aren’t all connected, which they are.

We were essentially saying that climate change is not just a technical problem. It’s not just an issue of emissions. It’s an issue of the systems that have allowed an industry that essentially poisons people to continue, and to do so even as it further and further imperils our survival, both as a nation and as a globe. It comes down to issues of race and class and place.

And so this moment actually makes me glad that we did that work before. Because it has meant that some groups that are seen solely as climate, like the Sunrise Movement, have invested in this set of uprisings. They’re working with the Movement for Black Lives to get their members out to protest, to connect them to actions, to help them understand how climate is connected to this.

On holding the Governor accountable for his manifold failures, Ross Barkan continues to do good work, including in this recent piece, “It was Andrew Cuomo’s Curfew,” in which he writes:

The backlash against the curfew and the calls for de Blasio’s resignation played perfectly into Cuomo’s hands. De Blasio was the front man for a reviled policy. Cuomo, again, receded into the background, leaving a lame-duck mayor to absorb a week of horrendous local and national press. It is a maneuver Cuomo has perfected; take credit for successes that are barely his own and avert blame for failures that are directly his doing. Cuomo’s tragic incompetence in the initial weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak was emblematic of what I will term, for a lack of a better phrase, the Cuomo style. Now that New York’s coronavirus case load is in decline, Cuomo will declare victory and seek plaudits for tamping down the pandemic. But almost 30,000 people are dead. The blood on Cuomo’s hands is real.

On the billionaireocracy, and the need to oppose it at every step, Essam Attia has a powerful piece in The Indypendent, questioning the wisdom of trusting Michael Bloomberg with our contact tracing data, in which he asserts:

A dangerous trend is emerging among members of the American billionaire class and their political allies. They perceive themselves to have limitless power. Bloomberg has demonstrated his willingness to exercise that power, from the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policy to covert spying in mosques, Islamic schools, Muslim-owned businesses and restaurants and his ambitions to install a drone surveillance program to target and surveil all New Yorkers.

Finally, in a brief round-up, it should go without saying, but “pedestrian-friendly street redesigns that happen without diverse public input can end up harming the communities they serve”; super impressive and inspiring that a 19-year-old “Queens Student Activist [Got] NYC Pols to Return Cop Union Funds” through doing some basic campaign finance research; and the debate rages on – today in separate pieces for The Intercept – regarding the radical reversal of position on the safety of large public gatherings by many public health experts, a debate which centers on claims about harm reduction and the relative threats to health posed by the pandemic and structural racism on the one hand, and accusations of hypocrisy and politicization of science on the other.

Heartbreakingly, an essential worker – caught up in a mass arrest by NYPD at a protest against police brutality that was being shut down for violating the above-mentioned curfew – has now been in jail for a week. I encourage you to call, write, or Tweet in his defense.

Heart-mendingly, a “woman who was arrested near a [protest in New Orleans was] released after hundreds of protesters immediately surrounded the [police] car [into which she’d been forced] demanding for her to be released.”

Here’s to a future of racial, health, environmental, and climate justice. We might simplify that to simply a just future, and a life-affirming one. I hope to see such a convergence emerge as the new center of our politics.

I Don’t Know How To Tell You This, But You’re Drowning

White-led organizations all across the United States are flailing. As I wrote previously, a lot of “listening” is suddenly happening. There’s also been an exhausting amount of newsletter writing. I’m reminded of an incident – that occurred a few years before my birth, but is emblematic of the toxic, post-Reaganite politics of the Idaho of my childhood – when then Representative (and now disgraced former Senator) Larry Craig – a “family values conservative” – “pre-emptively denied any connection to the [page] scandal before he’d been named publicly.” Umm, Larry, did anyone suggest you were involved?

It’s great that all these orgs are suddenly discovering their vocal “anti-racist” identities (just as it would have been great if Craig had come out as gay and stopped pursuing viciously anti-LGBTQIA+ agendas in Congress), but when the Guggenheim is sending me emails to let me know how committed the museum is to racial justice, well… Actions speak louder than words, so let’s see.

Great to see the rapidly evolving public dialogue around police brutality and what to do about it. As with the pandemic, and the mass crash course in epidemiology which it precipitated, the nationwide uprising has catalyzed previously almost unimaginable (or at least unimaginably rapid) shifts in our discourse around policing. Attending the CR 10 Conference in 2008 was an eye-opening experience for me; I’d read Angela Davis, Iceberg Slim, and others, so was at least familiar with the term “prison abolition” before that weekend, but can’t say I’d really grasped its significance or understood that it was rallying cry of a movement, and in the twelve years since, I’ve rarely heard it used outside of activist and academic contexts, so it’s been remarkable to see conversations about the difference between defunding and outright abolition of the police suddenly take center stage nationally. (This conversation between Mehdi Hasan and Patrisse Cullors is a helpful primer for readers looking to delve deeper into the distinction.) The emergence of a non-reformist (that is, radical) reform agenda is, in my view, encouraging, and represents a big step beyond the milquetoast liberalism of #8cantwait, though stops well short of the overthrow of the US Government which I know some on the Left are still working towards…

We know there have been crisis windfalls for corporations (most notably, in the form of the disaster capitalist bailouts undertaken by the Fed and Congress, but also for Amazon, Zoom, and other companies that have benefitted directly from pandemic-related shifts in the economy), but I’ve been interested to note – in tandem with the lightening quick reversals in public discourse mentioned above – the remarkable rises to prominence of previously obscure activists, academics, and journalists as their once marginal areas of specialty suddenly become focal points of national concern. (I’m impressed that Alex Vitale can still speak at this point, he’s given so many interviews in the past two weeks.) To that end, I’m featuring today a few excerpts from the work of Sonia Shah (with whom I’d not been familiar until my own stint in COVID University). What follows are images from her 2017 book, Pandemic (it’s about pandemics). Her examination of the emergence of novel vector-borne illnesses in the Northeast United States has particular resonance after this piece on Eastern Equine Encephalitis (entitled, “A Deadly Mosquito-Borne Illness Is Brewing in the Northeast”) spurred hysteria on Northeast Twitter last night. (Here’s a primer on the disease, also known as EEE – tl;dr: It’s like a very severe form of West Nile Virus, and seems to have been present in the US since the 1800s, although climate change and land-use patterns appear to be driving increased levels of human infection.)

Without further ado, Sonia Shah (from pages 30 to 32 and 38 and 39 of Pandemic):

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“The Enduring Phenomenon of Mosquito Biting”

Biodiversity and intact ecosystems tended to protect human populations from infection by West Nile Virus.

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Inexorable Spread

“[I]t spread inexorably” is not a phrase one ever likes to hear relative to a deadly disease, and yet, we do seem to be hearing just such usage of that phrase with ever greater frequency this century. Although Shah doesn’t explicitly make this point above, warmer temperatures in the Northeast (driven by anthropogenic climate disruption) are conducive to longer and more severe mosquito seasons.

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“Tick Populations Exploded”

Here’s an amazing sentence not pictured above: “These [now largely vanished chipmunks, weasels, and opossums] imposed a limit on the local tick population, for a single opossum, through grooming, destroyed nearly six thousand ticks per week.” Six thousand per week! That’s hard to fathom. That’s nearly 1,000 ticks per day, so nearly 50 per hour on average, assuming opossums only sleep four hours daily. Anyway, that built-in ecological check on tick populations no longer functions because humans gutted the ecological integrity of the forests of the Northeast. It wasn’t all humans who did this, of course, though, and as we look back at post-World War II history, it should be clear that racism – in the form of White Flight, and Federal highway and housing policies, that incentivized urban sprawl – actual played an instrumental role in this environmental destruction.

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“First Erupt […] Then Randomly Skip”
I include this only because the hypothetical description of the spread of “a modern pandemic of influenza” reflects, more or less exactly, how COVID-19 actually spread from December through March of this year.

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“A Series of Waves, Radiating Outward”

“A Series of Waves, Radiating Outward” is a beautiful phrase with frightening consequences that we’re now living through.

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When Simulation Becomes Reality

As we now know, New York did serve as a sort of second epicenter for the global spread of COVID-19. Speaking of which, friendly reminder that even as New York seems, now, to be doing a much better job than many other US states in containing the disease, 425 people still tested positive for COVID-19 yesterday in NYC, and for Wednesday, June 3rd – the day when many major news outlets reported there were no confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the City – the City’s official data portal now shows 28 deaths. That’s a lot more than zero, but I’ve yet to see any corrections or retractions.

Ross Barkan Tweets: “As New York reopens, beware the Andrew Cuomo victory narrative. He will say he saved New York from the worst of COVID-19. Nearly 30,000 people died. He failed tragically and miserably to avert catastrophe.” The Intercept slams Bill de Blasio’s broken promises and failed courage regarding police reform. “Satellite data suggests coronavirus may have hit China earlier” than previously believed, according to Harvard researchers. (Here’s the actual study.) “Widespread mask-wearing could prevent COVID-19 second waves” in tandem with social distancing and more limited lockdown measures, according to British researchers. (Study doesn’t seem to be widely available yet.) Zoom collaborated with the Chinese Government to silence activists commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre. Natural gas is not, and never was, a bridge fuel, and natural gas stoves are probably much worse for our health than we previously realized. And “A Drop in Sulfate Emissions During the Coronavirus Lockdown Could Intensify Arctic Heatwaves” according a new paper in Nature Climate Change. (This related piece from February outlines how certain forms of air pollution actually serve to mitigate global heating and hence reduce wealth disparities between rich and poor nations.)

Here’s a funny picture to take the edge off.

We live in a complex world, subject to non-linear dynamics and interactions that are hard to map and even harder to foresee. In thinking about the emergence of novel infectious diseases in the US, I think we have a perfect example of how climate crisis, contagion (though not the COVID-19 pandemic in particular), and white supremacy/structural racism intersect in toxic and deadly fashion. Ecological devastation and warming temperatures set the stage for explosions in populations of insect vectors (that now enjoy longer breeding seasons and expanded geographical ranges) just as the land-use changes (read: Sub/exurbanization) which drove much of the recent ecological devastation in the Northeast United States in the first place further serve to bring human populations into more regular proximity with the vector insects and their non-human animal hosts, while at the level of human politics, ideologies and policies – rooted in 400+ years of white supremacist, settler-colonial, hetero-patriarchal capitalism (its a mouthful, I know, but is there a better way to put it?) – continue to fuel patterns of extractivist dispossession through real estate speculation and resource plunder.

What’s to be done? Yesterday, I wrote about a new orientation in politics that invites a unification, not just of the Left, but of all people who are committed to life on earth. What remains to be seen, in the near term, is how the millions of previously apolitical/moderate/centrist individuals – who, in this country, have been participating in or supporting the nationwide uprising against police brutality spurred by the murder of George Floyd – will respond as they begin to grasp the broader ramifications of the movement of which they’ve nominally become a part. At a time of great, justified, popular anger (see: The pandemic, etc.), it’s easy to get behind police reform and increased spending on social welfare, but a truly life-affirming politics, in my view, necessitates confrontations with both capitalism and colonization, and, in the United States, those will be much harder conversations.

Chronicle of a Pandemic Foretold

The COVID-19 pandemic has been – widely, earnestly – characterized as “unprecedented” and a “black swan event”; coming from people who are neither specialists nor in power, these characterizations are innocent enough, but from politicians, business leaders, prominent journalists, and others who possess both the ability to shape popular understanding of reality and the capacity to change that reality at scale, such claims are irresponsible at best, and dishonest at worst. Either way, they do not reflect the truth, and fuel a dangerous false narrative that the threat of pandemic took the world by surprise. The US invasion of Iraq was no more a “mistake” than pandemic – with its catastrophic corollary consequences – was “unexpected,” and so, while another Marquez title came in for a lot of riffing upon in the early days of COVID-19’s spread beyond China, I believe that my Marquez-derived title above does more justice to the facts.

(Housekeeping note: From a professional standpoint, summer started yesterday for me, and I hope to take more of a my life back from the Internet, so these posts – like today’s – may focus primarily, in the next few months, on highlighting what I’m reading. Today, I’m going to share a bunch of excerpts from Mike Davis’s 2005 book, The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Influenza, but before I do, briefly: Yesterday, I went for another walk with my friend the climate scientist, and he mentioned that reporters have been asking him to make the connection between the nationwide uprising for racial justice and climate crisis; that he, like I have, has found all the talk of a “climate virus” and “a pandemic of racism” clumsy at best (I’d go so far as to say most of it is risible and destructive of the power of language to meaningfully describe and differentiate phenomena); and that, although he’s generally a buoyant person, this particular question has filled him with profound despair in view of the situation in which we find ourselves in the United States more than 400 years after the initiation of the European settler-colonial project here.)

What connections can meaningfully be drawn to connect struggles against climate crisis, pandemic, and white supremacy? At a level so broad as not to be terribly useful, they are all driven by capitalism. In a more immediate historical sense, they’ve all been exacerbated by neoliberal corporate globalization. From the standpoint of discourse, activists and academics have warned about the threat posed by all three for at least decades if not centuries. From the standpoint of politics, all three threats have been largely ignored by people in power, save for brief periods of exception to this rule initiated by popular pressure. From the standpoint of the future, if we want to have one, all three issues, and others related to them, will have to be addressed in a coherent fashion that will require a comprehensive reworking of the structure of the world. I see many hopeful starts in this direction – in the form of the Green New Deal, the Poor People’s Movement, and Black Lives Matter in this country, for example. (I’m not a big fan of Bruno Latour’s, but when he writes of a new orientation in politics towards “the terrestrial,” I think he’s rightly theorizing a new political positionality that can unite movements for racial justice, climate justice, environmental justice, anti-militarism, anti-imperialism, etc., etc. in a way that overcomes the current fragmentation of the Left, globally.)

Anyway, more on that in the future, perhaps, but for now, Mike Davis (all photos are drawn, chronologically, from The Monster at our Door; page numbers available upon request):

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Placating the CCP

Going back at least to SARS, the WHO has been forced to play politics with powerful national governments – including China’s – in attempts to operate effectively in responding to outbreaks of infectious disease.

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A False Sense of Security

We all know from life experience that just because you gambled once and won, it doesn’t mean you’ll win again.

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Disproportionate Global Impacts

As in 2003, so today, the dread looms of the disproportionate impact COVID-19 will have on countries of the Global South, even as we’ve already seen the disproportionate sickness and death suffered by poor, Black, brown, and Indigenous communities in hard-hit Global North countries.

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Close Call after Close Call

Smart societies, like smart people, learn from their mistakes and close shaves and adjust their behavior accordingly.

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No Vaccine Available

The words of the former Coordinator of the WHO’s Global Influenza Programme regarding lack of vaccines and antivirals “when the next pandemic starts” have been proven true.

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1 Billion Dead

Thank goodness COVID-19 is not as deadly as the avian influenza (H5N1) upon which Davis’s book centers, but note that, in 2005 (and before) experts were already predicting mass mortality from a pandemic caused by a novel zoonotic virus.

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“Slowly and Quietly Falling Apart”

Republican administrations (like the Bush II Administration criticized above by the Lancet) have been worse than Democratic ones in the US, but the decay of our public health infrastructure (and public goods and infrastructures more broadly) has been secular over the past 50 years.

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“If a Pandemic Happened Today…”

Hospitals overwhelmed; healthcare workers infected; vaccines not even in production, but altogether lacking; critical services collapsing – in New York City in March 2020: Check, check, check, and check.

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“Enough Warnings”

Why weren’t we prepared, then?

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“There Would Be Panic”

Nationally, as globally, we are still at “the beginning of a pandemic,” and we should remain vigilant and behave accordingly.

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“A Dark, Almost Despairing Portrait”

Garrett’s book was published in the year 2000. Here we are 20 years later, after sitting around at home on the Internet for two straight months, if we were lucky.

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“Most Worried About Africa”

The same concerns which were foregrounded by public health professionals in 2005 regarding the threat posed by pandemic flu to populations in Sub-Sahara Africa (where resources and public health infrastructure are very limited and the existing burden of chronic/infectious disease, very high) remain relevant today.

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War on Good Sense

We should remember that – in addition to being a Right-wing, born-again zealot and ideologue – George W. Bush is also a war criminal and, as such, should be brought to justice, not fêted by Ellen Degeneres and Michelle Obama.

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The Next Pandemic

The notion continues to haunt me that another pandemic could start any day. It could start now. It could have already started, and we might not yet know about it, but even if we are spared the horror of two simultaneous pandemics, the case remains that there is reasonably high likelihood we experience another COVID-19-like event globally, and perhaps something much worse, before another decade or two has passed.

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Nothing Less Likely

The struggle to reconstruct the world and reclaim a just, livable human future on Earth is the struggle of our generation and the through-thread that connects climate action, with pandemic preparedness (and prevention), with the work of abolition and towards racial justice. Either we do it all, simultaneously, as we build a new global politics and polity, or we fail, and the world burns (and coughs, and chokes, and hemorrhages). When seen through the broken glass of our current political lens, such a call seems untenable, necessitating as it does the unification of our kaleidoscopically fragmented movements, but reframed through an understanding, at once novel and ancient, of who we are, the discontinuities and incongruities resolve themselves into a radiant and unified whole in answer to a simple question: Are you for life on Earth, or are you against it?

A Pandemic of Bad Metaphors

We’ve gone from “quarantired” (my partner’s coinage) to “re-hopening” (my own), and while I, too, am hopeful that we won’t experience a COVID-19 backslide here in New York City, I do have real fears (see my post from yesterday, among many others) about our path forward. When Larry Brilliant warns that “[w]e have not even passed the first wave. We are early in this pandemic,” I listen (although the 5% fatality rate quoted in the linked article is almost certainly a drastic overstatement), and worrying signs are cropping up all across the United States and all over the world.

Part of the problem is widespread innumeracy. To consider some basics, as of this morning, the Hopkins tracker shows ~400,000 deaths globally and ~7,000,000 confirmed cases, but we have good empirical evidence that the infection fatality rate (IFR) for COVID-19 is probably around 1%. We also know that we’re drastically undercounting deaths. Obviously, the IFR will vary, perhaps significantly, from context to context, but using the 1% figure as a rough global average, and estimating, conservatively, that the global death toll has been underestimated by 25%, we would conclude that there have been:

400,000 * 1.25 = 500,000 actual deaths;

And that, further, there have then been:

500,000 * 100 = 50,000,000 actual infections.

Half a million deaths and 50 million cases globally sounds quite different than 400,000 deaths and 7 million cases just as, looking at New York City – where the current official City figure puts the death toll at 21,877, but the actual death toll likely stands somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 to date – official figures show “only” 204,253 confirmed cases, whereas using the 1% estimated IFR and extrapolating from the municipal death toll, we’d estimate that there have actually been 2 to 3 million infections already (which comports with results of recent serological surveys).

Why is this simple work not being done, reported in the corporate media, and incorporated into our collective thinking about the pandemic? Why do even good media outlets (like Democracy Now! – on which, to her credit, Amy Goodman religiously points out, after quoting official figures, that they almost certainly reflect a “vast undercount”) persist in quoting the official figures when we know they’re not accurate? Because they’re the only data we have? Well then, shouldn’t we at least do the simple math to properly contextualize? It is – horribly – harder to hide overflowing hospitals or mounting dead bodies than it is stealthily spreading infection, and it seems clear that we should be predicating our understanding of the extent of the disease’s spread and impact on the most, not the least, reliable indicators available to us. (David Dayen addresses similar issues in yesterday’s Unsanitized newsletter (which led me to the latest Brilliant quote); in particular, Dayen emphasizes the folly of using national trends to chart undifferentiated policy for the entire United States when conditions vary radically from locality to locality and state to state.)

One conclusion all this would lead to is that, based on New York City’s experience – even if cross-immunity or some other mitigating factor does prove to be in play, and barring drastic regional differences in susceptibility – a solid double-digit percentage of a population can become infected by SARS-CoV-2, but less than 1% of the global population has, as yet, been infected. That leaves frightening scope for ongoing explosive global spread of COVID-19. (Another is that with roughly 1/1000th or 0.1% of the world’s population, NYC has had something like 5% of the world’s COVID-19 cases to date.)

Changing topics, per Kimberlé Crenshaw, among many others, I hope we are at the outset of a Third Reconstruction in the United States, and that the third time proves the charm, to put it glibly. I’ve mostly taken a step back from opining on the uprising – as I strive simply to support the movement out of a desire that it should fundamentally reshape our politics – but continue to be concerned about what I’ll call the “revolution fetish” of some subsets of the US Left. In trying to understand the struggles of the dispossessed – whether Palestinians in Gaza, the Muslim majority of the Kashmir Valley, the Naxalites of Central India, or the Black and Indigenous peoples of the United States – with some limited exceptions, I feel it is not my place to pass moral judgment on the forms taken by their resistance/rebellion (nor would I feel inclined to so judge, even if good sense didn’t prevent me from so doing); however, for better or worse, the United States is my country, and so while I withhold moral judgment regarding actions taking during the nationwide uprising, I am uniquely interested in the uprising’s outcome, and therefore uniquely concerned with the efficacy of strategies and tactics being employed. To the extent that oppressed people in this country truly believe in armed rebellion, toward violent revolution and overthrow of the unjust US Government, I cannot fault them; however, to the extent that a lot of fruitless jargon and rhetoric continues to circulate – sans any sign of preparation, plans, clear goals, strategy, tactical know-how, etc. – about the efficacy of violence, the need for revolution, etc., I, frankly, think people advancing this language are full of shit. Revolutions have been undertaken and won, including in this country, Haiti, and – at different times and in different places – across the Hemisphere and around the world. They can be liberatory or regressive in nature, and they very often have unexpected near-, medium-, and long-term consequences, so shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. They also don’t generally succeed (witness the recent coup attempt in Venezuela) when they are less than half-assed.

People might get off on overblown rhetoric of violence, or – fatalistically – they might simply feel that Left movements or Black liberation struggles are perennially doomed to fail in this most reactionary of countries, but must, nonetheless, occasionally explode into open rebellion. As a materialist, a realist, and an anti-determinist, I see very strong reasons for fear, doubt, and skepticism, and yet every basis for rejecting fatalism and despair. Struggles, historically, have not generally been won either through rashness or hopelessness (neither through undue caution, nor through hope alone), but what I imagine none of us on the divided and fractious US Left want is to look back on these heady days and say, only, “Damn, those were some great essays” – great essays, full of sound and fury, but, in the end, signifying and advocating nothing.

Postscript: Ross Barkan has a good piece up on The Cuomo Files, which questions, “Are the Police Unions Done For?” and my friend Emily passed along this necessary piece by a number of physicians, entitled, “George Floyd’s Autopsy and the Structural Gaslighting of America.”